Question: In James 2, the Bible says "faith without works is dead"; while Romans 4 says a person is "justified by faith without works." What is the answer?
Answer: The answer is really very simple, when you remember two basic principles. First, is our justification in God’s eyes; that is our salvation, given to us as a free gift; which is accepted by faith and faith alone (Ephesians 2:8,9). Second is our justification in man's eyes. A Christian may talk about his faith; but, if his life does not reflect what he says, very few will believe him. All of his talk will fall on dead ears. This is what James 2 is speaking about.
Both James and Romans use Abraham as an illustration; but, if you notice carefully, they refer to different times in Abraham's life. Notice Romans 4:3:
"For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness."
This refers back to Genesis 15:6 when Abraham believed the promises God had made to him. Here is the record.
"And he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and he (God) counted it to him for righteousness."
This is our salvation, our justification, or righteousness; which is given to us when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. Romans 4:5 makes it perfectly clear—salvation is by faith and not of works.
"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted unto him for righteousness."
No amount of good works will ever save us (Isaiah 64:6); and no amount of good works will ever keep us saved; since we were not saved by good works to begin with. (Titus 3:5).
Back to James, which is emphasizing our testimony for the Lord. This is our justification before man. Only when our life backs up our words will people justify what we say as being true. If a Christian has only the "talk" and not the "walk," his words will only fall on deaf ears. James states this in 2:17,18:
"Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works."
Notice carefully, James says "I will shew thee my faith by my works." The "thee" is another person—not God. People will only "justify" what we say if they can see it in our lives.
Abraham. James is referring to Abraham years after he was saved, when his faith was being tested with the offering up of his only son, Isaac. Here is the record in James 2:21.
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works (in man's eyes), when he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar."
James refers to Abraham's testing as recorded in Genesis 22, many years after his salvation as mentioned in Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:3. Genesis 22:3,5 tells us there were two men with Abraham, witnessing whether Abraham would obey God or not. No doubt, over the years in Abraham's life from Genesis 15:6 to Genesis 22, he had talked of his faith in the great and marvelous promises God had made to him. If Abraham had failed to obey God in Genesis 22, all of his talk about faith would have fallen on deaf ears to those who were watching. These men were satisfied and Abraham justified in their eyes; because Abraham walked what he talked!
The key, Romans 4 is speaking about justification in God's eyes—salvation. James is speaking about the Christian's justification in man's eyes—service or obedience. If you want others to believe what you say, your walk must be in harmony with your talk.
On this same line of distinction between salvation and service, is the distinction between two kinds of "rests" and two kinds of "peace" a Christian may experience.